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Alaska bear-viewing advice from The New York Times could kill

Craig Medred

Here we go again. This time it's the New York Times promoting the idea of getting way too close to grizzly bears along the Kenai Peninsula's Russian River, site of at least one horrible mauling in recent years.

A Times column, "The 6th Floor," today posted an oh-so-cute photo of a grizzly cub holding a sockeye salmon at the Russian. Google News picked the item up as its lead Alaska news story. And here is what photographer Seth Casteel, a man famous for underwater photos of dogs, but obviously ignorant about bears, says in the text accompanying the photo:

"At the time I took this photo, I was approximately 35 feet away. I was with an expert guide and we had positioned ourselves in a safe, elevated spot, watching closely to make sure we weren’t upsetting the bears by being there."

OK, there is no "safe, elevated spot" around grizzly bears unless you are in an enclosed, elevated viewing platform like those the National Park Service has built along the Brooks River in Katmai National Park and Preserve to try to ensure safe viewing. There are no such platforms along the Russian River. An "elevated spot" along the river might give someone the illusion of safety, but that's all it is -- an illusion.

Bears can run uphill almost as fast as they can run downhill or on the level, and the speed is damn fast. Wildlife biologist Will Troyer, who just happens to live near the Russian in Cooper Landing, once clocked a grizzly running 35 mph in front of a truck on Kodiak Island. Given the bears can go from standing still to top speed in the blink of an eye, it would take them no more than a couple seconds to cover 35 feet.

After a San Diego man was killed and partially eaten by a grizzly in Denali National Park and Preserve in August, a park ranger and an Anchorage newspaper chastised the dead man for getting "too close" in order to take photographs. He was, at the time, thought to have been within 40 yards of a lone, male bear. As it turned out, he was about 60 yards away -- or about five times the distance to which Casteel approached a grizzly sow with two cubs on the Russian.

Hopefully, Casteel's unidentified "expert guide" was armed in case he had to stop a charging sow. Chugach National Forest Service officials note a permit is required for anyone to guide in the forest. There is, at this time, no one licensed by the forest to guide bear viewers on the Russian.

Forest officials have tried to downplay the Russian, one of the state's most popular salmon fishing streams, as a bear viewing area, but there are those -- Casteel apparently among them -- who appear to believe the bears gather there for human entertainment:

"This is a 2-year-old grizzly bear cub 'showing off” a male sockeye salmon he just caught out of the Russian River," Casteel told the Times. "The two 300-pound cubs chased fish for about an hour, catching quite a few, but only eating two. It was mostly a “catch and release” fishing trip. The cubs were just goofing off, but were certainly curious about these bright red fish....Talk about a dream come true. Bears are extraordinary animals, but it’s obviously critical to be respectful. What you don’t see in this picture is the 600-pound mama bear, sitting just another 35 feet behind her baby, looking on to make sure everything is OK."

And if "mama" decided everything wasn't OK, what then?

The Russian River sow in question, a regular on the river this summer, didn't hurt anyone. But she did bluff charge more than one group of people. And with a grizzly bear, there is no telling when a bluff charge becomes a real charge. Sometimes, indications are, not even the bear knows. Dan Bigley, who almost died on the banks of the river, is believed to have been the victim of an upset sow. She bit him in the head and left him blind. He was, at the time, doing nothing but hiking back to his car after a day of fishing.

Chugach forest officials say the true way to be "respectful" to the Russian River bears is to leave them alone.

But then that sort of behavior doesn't sell. Here's Casteel again: "The biggest challenge of this assignment was to tell the story of this extraordinary journey of the salmon, and also live to tell about it. That sounds kind of dramatic! Alaska is the most amazing place I’ve ever seen, but it occurs to you out there how wild it really is, and the potential dangers lurk just meters away. Hiking through the rain in absolute wilderness with 60 pounds of gear, dangling off slippery cliffs of rock above a rushing 37-degree Russian River, discovering half-eaten salmon along the way, wondering, 'Hmm, where exactly is this bear now?'"

The Russian River? "Absolute wilderness," "slippery cliffs," and 37-degree water? Long stretches of the Russian are choked with anglers during the sockeye salmon season. There is a well-used trail along the "cliffs," which aren't really cliffs. And the water temperature in summer ranges from 48 to 52 degrees F. 

Chilly water, indeed, but nowhere near 37 degrees. But the water does rush, and there are sometimes half-eaten salmon to be found, some in magnficient spawning colors

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com